Gardener’s notes: Winter is on its way...

Acer leaf
Acer leaf

It is the last chapter in the garden before winter.

Even Gardeners’ World has aired the final episode. Autumn finally arrived and leaves are displaying all the seasonal shades as the chlorophyll fades, exposes the oranges and yellows hidden beneath and these break down and release red pigments. Do collect up your leaves and store them somewhere they can break down to produce free leaf mould which you can later nourishingly dig back into the garden.

To give my garden the very best head start I naturally like to plant as much as possible now. Planting in autumn is recommended because the conditions are favourable and if we establish plants now we can enjoy them next year. Plants benefit from having time to create a solid root system through autumn, winter and early spring, when they are not under pressure to flower and produce leaves. The soil is warm and moist and not yet frozen providing the conditions are kind enough to support them. If we miss this perfect October/November period the early spring is another peak planting season and probably a more suitable time to plant our silvery sun loving Mediterranean plants.

Having said that, plants which are grown in pots, rather than those lifted straight from the ground, do have a reasonable pre-established root system which is how we manage to cheat nature and plant throughout the year regardless. These would still establish best in autumn.

Many plants, particularly those used for hedging, are best purchased economically with bare roots just lifted from the ground. Now is the definable time to establish a new hedge and this applies to some trees as well.

It is also a very favourable time for rearranging. I am moving the plants that did not perform or provide the size shape or colour intended.

Choosing the right plant for the right place can be daunting. It’s worth noting that most of the plant labels and descriptions printed in books usually dwell on the optimum growing conditions a plant requires. They may survive in a less perfect growing environment but not grow quite as big or as lusciously. It can be quite hard to definitely classify an area of your garden as dry shade when, though dry in the summer, it has a tendency to flood in the winter.

A dry soils that floods are not a common sub heading. Books have to start somewhere but their help is limited by the simple categories like dry shade, or full sun. Where helpful use them as much as you can for ideas, but often a plant that suits one category may also thrive in different conditions. I find it useful to find out if a plant grew naturally in woodland or the prairies etc and also what country it was originally collected from, as our plants are as multicultural as our country. The clue may be in the name, a Japonica obviously came from Japan, a sibirica probably Siberia.

Success in the garden will depend upon the degree of water or the degree of light and the soil. In these challenging places you sometimes have to experiment and try things. Incidentally, in one of my challenging areas of dappled shade that floods under a huge willow, I have established bluebells with cowslips, foxgloves and snake’s head fritillaries. I am going to add some Bergenia sibirica (white) and Helleborus angustifolia, the native hellebore, some ferns, violas and hostas. It has begun to look very woody and natural.

If you have an extremely dry position, it doesn’t overlook the possibility of planting a Sedum which is succulent. If shade is the problem Pulmonary may provide the answer.

When you are desperate there are some plants I would classify as thugs which are strong and ruthless, often invasive, but may be just what you need - rosa rugosa, Vinca major or Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae.

Knowing when a plant is not happy: The clue is often in the leaf.

Plants will give you clues if they are unhappy and want moving. I have seen lots of anthemis daisies growing too tall and leaning on a peculiar angle towards the only light source. They are begging for a sunnier position which they deserve because they flower with such loyalty every year when happy. As the leaf is feathery the lack of surface area suggests it is not going to soak enough light as many shade loving plants, which have leaves like dinner plates to catch the light in limited shade! Heuchera and heucherella, tiarella and pulmonaria are all leafy plants that cope well with degrees of shade.

Plants with dark red foliage tend not to absorb as much light and therefore can handle bright positions such as red Acer palmatum var. dissectum. Planted in the dark they tend to revert to a dark green, allowing them opportunity to absorb more light.

Many silver plants cope well in hot full sun, the silver colour reducing the volume of light absorbed. Placed in the shade it is often just too dark. Russian Sage (Perovskia) Artemisia and lavender all enjoy hot sunny Mediterranean positions.

Plants that are not growing or producing much flower may have a new lease of life once relocated to a damper, drier or shadier place, so look for clues in the leaf.

Structurally if tall plants swamp the front of your border dig them up now and move them further back.

Stick your head over the garden fence and see what is thriving and surviving in your neighbours’ borders. Why shouldn’t you pinch a few ideas, but never plants, always, always buy them from your local nurseries!

I feel this last garden chapter is about adding the finishing touches to your garden. Aside from sitting in your garden with a glass of wine and enjoying all its splendour on a lovely day this has got to be the best bit, deciding how you can improve the garden you have got.

The first question you should ask yourself when looking at a tree, fence or any bulky shrub, is could something climb up it or through it, like a honeysuckle or rose? Can you get a second flush of flowers in this space and could you choose something that will complement the existing foliage? I was inspired to plant a deep purple viticella clematis through my beloved silver evergreen Garrya Elliptica. This time next year, well from late summer, I plan to be admiring the scramble of purple petals against the frosty silver.

A viticella clematis will squeeze almost anywhere, it is perfect through things like potentilla bushes and lonicera hedges. I have read they complement buddleias as well particularly as they can be cut back together and buddleias are quiet limiting. I have a philadelphus that briefly flowers in the blink of an eye which I think might also benefit from a viticella clematis.

Winter’s coming so why not plant evergreen winter flowering clematis. There are lots of varieties. I like Cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’ or ‘Jingle bells’. They have fern like glossy foliage and limey cream bell like flowers. These would cover bare gaps on a picket fence perfectly and give you winter flowers. They prefer more sheltered positions.

It is November so we must plant our tulips. They prefer the ground well drained. I look for sunnier more open spots in the ground and plant in blocks of colour or shades that blend together but I think they look lovely in bowl and tulip shaped containers.

Take stock of the garden and try and remember where you needed more colour and fluff. I have added more stipia grasses to my prairie area where I grow Echinacea and Heleniums, a south facing drier area of my garden thanks to a tree creating the perfect eco system.

In damper shadier areas I am inclined to slip in evergreen ferns and hellebores to fill them.

Under trees I am adding cyclamen corms to flower in the spring, though under silver birch I always plant snowdrops and through the grass I will have snake’s head fritillaries.

Some borders need edging as a finishing touch and if you were thinking of edging your garden with nepeta, a low box hedge, Alchemillia mollis or carrex grasses now is an excellent time to do it.

If you have a dull patch which you would like to feature more in your garden vista sprinkle through some white plants as they will draw your eye. Old favourites like tough old Spiraea aurguta are an excellent eye catcher with their vale of white blossom. If it’s a hot position cistus is an easy shrub to fill a space. If you are trying to conceal an ugly wall or garage remember to plant dark plants like large Sambucus nigra or purple hazel so they to do not become unwanted features and remain masked rather than highlighted by plants.

We are restricted by weather but while we are still permitted in the garden make the most of every day and remember planting now is the best investment you can make in next year’s garden, almost everything you plant or relocate will have the very best chance of success.